And Miles To Go Before I Sleep

The Los Angeles Marathon is Sunday. I'm not running this year, but I'm feeling nostalgic and I'm short on new content, so I'm reprinting an essay I wrote for my company newsletter about the 2006 Marathon. (The coda to this story: after gimping about Bunker Hill post-race searching in vain for a functioning bus stop, I made my way to a nearby hotel, where I ate free bananas and waited for some friends to finish the race. I managed to hitch a ride home with a friend of theirs, actor Ted Raimi of Xena and Seaquest DSV fame. It was a strange day.)

And Miles to Go Before I Sleep

Seven minutes after the pistol goes off, I cross the starting line.

I don’t even hear the shot. There are too many people and too much noise, and from where I wait, far back in a field of twenty-five thousand, there are few immediate signs the marathon has begun.

The late start won’t matter. My race won’t officially begin until my feet cross the starting mat, which will activate the electronic chip tied to my shoelaces. Bunched together like a gigantic amoeba, we shuffle through downtown Los Angeles, down Figueroa Street past the Staples Center, toward my alma mater, USC, where at last the amoeba breaks apart. We spread out and settle into our individual paces.

We continue through the streets of South Los Angeles. I remember how this area looked after the riots in 1992, buildings burnt and windows smashed. Today it looks cheerful and calm. We run by parks, churches, schools. Neighbors sit on porches and cheer us on. Spirits are high, but the race has barely begun.

Marathons are a bleak endeavor. They have their roots in a grim, if apocryphal, event: following the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, Pheidippides ran from Athens to Marathon, delivered news of the defeat of the Persians, and dropped dead. In a tragic echo of Pheidippides’s fate, today there will be two deaths along the 26.2-mile course.

This is my first major timed road race. It’s not what I expected. The aid stations at every mile are equal parts oasis and obstacle course: the street is sticky with spilled Gatorade and strewn with discarded cups and smashed packets of energy gel. I’m not used to drinking out of cups while running. On my first attempt, I dump the contents down my shirt.

I’ve trained for this on my own, building up from daily five-mile dashes home from work to twenty-mile jogs on the weekends, long loops down Wilshire from the La Brea Tar Pits to the ocean and back. Over Christmas in Minnesota, I rediscovered the giddy delight of running in a blizzard, hurdling snowbanks with no grace but much joy. Running on my own is enjoyable, even exhilarating.

Running with 25,255 other people is not.

Early in the course, the Gatorade hits my nervous stomach like poison. I stick to water for the rest of the race. This is a grave strategic error, and I know it, but I’m too discombobulated to refuel properly. A volunteer hands me two gel packets. I hold them, unused, for the next few miles. I know I need to eat them. I’ll be out here for hours, so my body needs a steady influx of fuel to keep powering my legs, and yet I can’t bring myself to ingest the sticky-sweet goo. Eventually, I throw them away.

There’s a panoply of entertainment along the course in the form of dancers, pep squads, and bands. Nourishment is continuously proffered to us: orange slices, bananas, candy, pretzels, beer. There are free socks from Nike, free phone calls from Sprint, and free mid-race lap dances from one of the local strip clubs.

I’m running with a secret: a stress fracture, a small crack in my tibia. It’s not serious, and it doesn’t affect my gait, but it hurts. In my bleakest moments during the race, I mentally picture the cracked bone separating and pushing together with every flex of my foot. This is not helpful.

Mile sixteen runs right past my apartment. My neighbors are sitting in lawn chairs watching the race. When they spot me, they cheer. My emotions are too close to the surface; this small human contact makes me burst into tears.

I cry through mile seventeen.

I bonk too early. That’s the accepted, if unscientific, term for what happens when the body burns up all available glycogen: bonking. It’s also known as hitting the wall. My legs turn into stiff rubber. I’m running on fumes. I’m exhausted.

The first part of the race was tough. The rest will be brutal.

The last few miles run along Olympic Boulevard back into downtown. The course here is straight and level and wide and… ugly. Monstrously ugly. The sun is high, the morning is gone, the marine layer is a memory, the horizon is dirty, and the landscape is an unending stretch of strip malls, gas stations, and convenience stores. My sunscreen melts away. My skin is bright red and covered with a white, sludgy layer of salt. I’m not so much running as plodding.

On the plus side: I’m almost done.

As I cross the finish line, I forget to glance at the clock to check my time, forget to raise my arms in triumph, forget to smile for the cameras. A volunteer crouches down to cut the timing chip off of my shoe. I’m pathetically grateful I don’t have to do that for myself, because if I kneel down I’ll never get back up. Someone hangs a medal around my neck. It’s huge and heavy and absurd, and at the moment, my most treasured possession in all the world.

There are vivid gashes under my arms from the seams of my jersey and angry blisters around my navel from the drawstring of my shorts. In the week following the marathon, two of my toenails turn black and fall off. It’s collateral damage. It’s worth it.

The only clear way out of the crowd is through the long Third Street Tunnel, which takes me in precisely the opposite direction of home. It spits me out near the Angels Flight funicular.

I’m grimly pleased that my exhausted, heat-addled brain can come up with the word “funicular.”

I’m miles from home, I can’t find a subway stop, and all the bus routes are on detour due to the closed streets. My ankle hurts. My body hurts. I’m soaking wet and growing chilled. I’m walking east, and I need to go west. I have no idea how I’m getting home.

I’m happy.


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